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Vintage Tees 104: How to “Spot” Fakes

Other Guides:

Vintage T-Shirts 101: eBay Shopping Guide

Vintage T-Shirts 102: Avoid buying a forgery.

Vintage T-Shirts 103: The Gallery of Tags.

guide chalkboardNote: This guide was authored in 2007, 14 years later the landscape of fakes and forgeries has changed dramatically. Counterfeiters are now using far more advanced techniques including manufacturing fake tags and convincingly pulling off all-over prints. We compiled a modern vintage t-shirt authentication guide.

The guide below can help determine if your t-shirt was printed by a t-shirt printing machine around the era this guide was originally published. In 2023 we thoroughly investigated modern DTG vs Screen Printing and how to tell them apart.

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Our epic battle against fake vintage t-shirts continues. This time we’re going to have a little fun in the Defunkd laboratories by experimenting on some suspected forgeries purchased on eBay.

To highlight the differences, we’ll pit two questionable tees with the same design against each other. Both tees were also photographed under the exact same lighting conditions. With the exception of added visual indicators, neither have been retouched nor altered in any fashion.


digital underground humpty

As outlined in our second t-shirt guide, the latest high-tech t-shirt printing machines are one of the recent trends in creating forgeries. Many local print shops now carry direct-to-garment printing machines that make t-shirts on a one-off basis. Here’s how it works: you provide a decent-quality image, and that image is formatted by the employees and transferred to the machine. A white t-shirt is placed in the machine, centered, and 5 minutes later you’ve got a t-shirt.

The end result can appear to be quite convincing in photos. Any loss in quality from the poor print process isn’t evident because the contrast of the photo is manipulated by the vendor and then reduced in size by eBay. Combine this with the fact that the persons behind these forgeries are using actual vintage t-shirts to print on, so now they have a recognizable vintage brand (as detailed in the 3rd tee guide) and a previously worn shirt to help further legitimize the print. And of course, the t-shirt is only one of many other vintage clothing items this vendor has for sale, the majority of which are real, which also lends credibility to the vendor’s products.

As always we suggest you shop with vendors who have stellar feedback ratings as detailed in our first t-shirts guide. If you decide to roll the dice elsewhere, use the information below to make a better decision, and then test the item once it arrives or on questionable t-shirts, you already have in your possession. And if it fails the test you can always file a PayPal dispute and try to get your money back.

The methods below will help you determine the difference between a t-shirt that has gone through the screen print process and one that has been printed using a machine.

It’s important to note that because of the method of printing, these t-shirt machines are only capable of printing on lighter-colored shirts, and it’s suggested that you use pure white 100% cotton for the best results. Why is this you ask? A screen print is a rubber and ink substance that physically sits on top of the fabric so you can use it on any color t-shirt. The t-shirt printing machines dye the fabric by spraying inks that are absorbed into it. If the fabric were black or other shades, there is less contrast between ink and fabric, and the print would look faded. And if the shirt had synthetic fibers, it becomes far less absorbent to the ink.

humpty dance close up

A) The first test you can do on a suspected shirt to make sure it’s a screen print is to run your fingers over the design. A screenprint will have a physical rubbery-like texture that becomes obvious when your fingers go from a blank area of the shirt to a printed area. If you close your eyes while doing it you can feel where the design begins. A shirt that has been printed with a machine will not have raised ink because it has been absorbed into the fabric.

humpty dance close up

B) Another major indicator is the quality of the print. Most vintage t-shirts are a 50/50 poly-cotton blend, so when used in this forgery process there is an immediate loss in the quality of the print. The reason being that the synthetic polyester portion of the t-shirt will not absorb the ink sprayed from these machines. Couple that with the fact that persons behind this are usually getting the design from a shirt, and quality is always lost with this type of duplication.

humpty dance close up

C) The final and best way to “spot” a fake? “It’s real easy to do, check it out” – Humpty.

If you still suspect you have a forgery on your hands after reviewing all of our guides proceed carefully at your own risk. We’re going to use bleach, so the test below should not be attempted on anything other than a pure white-based shirt. And if the shirt you’re questioning is printed on a dark-based tee, then for reasons previously described, you can be certain it wasn’t produced by one of these machines.

The best test to discover if your shirt isn’t a screen print is to dab a drop of bleach on the darkest portion of the design. A true screenprint on white fabric will not be affected by bleach. But also note – some t-shirts from the early 1970s and previous decades used a similar ink process that modern-day counterfeiters do. So despite being true vintage, will fail this test. As long as the fabric is pure white the ink formulation in the screen printing substance won’t be discolored by bleach. While doing this be careful to put a tiny bit of bleach only the print, not letting bleach soak through to the rest of the shirt. After about 30 minutes the t-shirt machine ink print becomes obvious it’s a forgery. If your t-shirt passes the test, make sure to thoroughly rinse the fabric of residual bleach. If it doesn’t pass the test, use it as a dishrag.

humpty dance close up

The end result? So #1 is a real vintage shirt, right? Well, we determined that it was created using the screen printing process and the t-shirt on the right was created using a t-shirt printing machine. But truth be told both shirts are fake. The t-shirt on the left is a also vintage bootleg.

How do I know? I dug deep in the Defunkd photo archives to find another version of this t-shirt (#3) and you can see the differences in the print. When compared with #1 we see the colors and details aren’t accurate. The ink mishaps make it obvious that counterfeiter #2 used counterfeiter #1’s already poor-quality image.

So we see these t-shirt printing machines don’t do certain prints justice, and a side-by-side is always very telling. That said, I have seen these machines used effectively for one and two-colored prints from the 70s and previous decades. Those designs can be more simple, and the counterfeits can be more convincing, especially on a beat-up vintage t-shirt.

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this song. The problem is that if a seller really sets out to deceive us, it can be very hard to identify a forgery without proper analysis. Especially if they use a true vintage branded t-shirt and put together an accurate screen print. So stay on your toes and stick with shops that are operated by honest t-shirt dealers and ask a vintage t-shirt expert for help.

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